The Pope Francis Conspiracy

The Pope Francis Conspiracy
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Among the wealth of books published about Pope Francis, Catholics are still looking for the ultimate biography. So far, most -- if not all -- have fallen short.

You could say "the ultimate" biography will only be written when his pontificate is completed. But a fascinating figure such as Pope Francis, a complex personality with an incredible impact on the secular world, demands a book that can help us better understand and appreciate how he became the man he is and what he hopes for the Church and the world.

Enter Pope Francis, Life and Revolution: A Biography of Jorge Bergoglio. Originally written in Spanish by Elisabetta Piqué -- the Vatican correspondent of La Nación, Argentina's most influential newspaper -- the book was quickly translated into Italian. Recently, it has been translated into English by Loyola Press.

Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley, a member of a commission of eight cardinals on Church reform, shares some valuable stories and personal reflections about Pope Francis in a promising and enticing opening for the book.

Unfortunately, it's also the best part.

From there, the books reveals very little new, quotes too many other, well-known public sources, and intertwines too many personal opinions on matters in which the author is not an expert.

The author spends the better part of the first third of the book on a dull litany of facts and chronology about the Pope's early life. Piqué provides little, if any information beyond books that are already out there, such as Pope Francis, Conversations with Jorge Bergoglio: His Life in His Own Words, by Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti; or the series of interviews about Cardinal Bergoglio gathered in Pope Francis, Our Brother, Our Friend: Personal Recollections about the Man Who Became Pope, by Alejandro Bermudez. And while Pope Francis's youth and early seminary years are indeed interesting, Piqué fails to show how they shaped the leader we see today.

And, when quickly moving forward to address Bergoglio's life as archbishop, Piqué starts with a sweeping statement:

As Archbishop and Primate he is judged too meek by a right-wing sector of the Argentine church that maintains strong links with an influential part of the Roman Curia. This group, which will soon start waging war against him, accusing him in Rome of not being orthodox enough, is reinforced in April 2003 by the arrival in Buenos Aires of the nuncio (Ambassador to the Holy See) Adriano Bernardini, a man working for Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the influential Secretary of State between 1991 and 2006 -- who does not like Bergoglio at all.

How can Piqué make such a claim? Based on personal investigation? No. It's simply the opinion of a Spanish journalist.

The book goes on like this: one sweeping statement after another implicating "bad guys" against the future or current Pope, all coming from other sources selected rather arbitrarily by Piqué. The book moves farther and farther away from the genre of biography and deeper into the territory of politics, a genre that the author claims as her area of expertise.

In the few cases in which Piqué claims personal expertise, the facts seems to contradict her. In one example she writes that,

between the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006, the attack against Bergoglio (which I followed closely as correspondent of the daily La Nación) reaches its culmination. Bernardini and his Roman Curia friends intervene directly in the nomination of a number of conservative bishops. Among these are the Archbishop of Rosario (Santa Fe), José Luis Mollaghan...

The statement begs a question: If Archbishop Mollaghan was in fact a "conservative rival" of Archbishop Bergoglio, why has Pope Francis appointed him to the crucial position of the new "Czar" for sex abuse cases at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?

The conspiracy environment that the author creates around almost every episode of Bergoglio's life -- mostly based in other public sources apparently selected more by its capacity to thicken the plot rather than by its factual reliability -- certainly makes for an easy, quick read. And, interesting factoids as well as juicy personal anecdotes help in the process.

But as the reading advances, so does the disappointment, as more opinion and speculation end up taking center stage over the much-needed facts.

Chapter 15, "The Pearls of Santa Marta," does provide a refreshing look at the silent, powerful revolution Pope Francis is making not so much with his major interviews or public statements, but his beautiful, simple, and creative pastoral preaching at the daily masses he celebrates in Santa Marta.

But here Piqué falls short again: too much personal description, too few quotes, nearly all of them taken from public sources.

Her over-generalized, conspiracy approach to Pope Francis's life reaches a fever pitch in chapter 17, "The Resistance." This is how Piqué describes what the "enemies" of Pope Francis do: "the ultraconservative sectors vent their fury on the Internet, on websites and blogs where -- besides accusing Francis of being a demagogue, a populist, and wanting to diminish the role of Supreme Pontiff -- they charge him with 'pauperism,' being attracted to poverty."

The whole chapter goes on with this rhetoric, describing real or imaginary enemies, based not in facts, but in the opinions of sources such as Italian journalist Marco Politi -- a Vatican analyst not the least bit hesitant to identify himself with the hard left -- or the National Catholic Reporter in the United States. What's perhaps the book's greatest irony is that the author goes to great lengths to quote the Pope's lifelong resistance to labels and political categories, within the Church and outside of it. Yet the reader is left feeling like she has pushed Pope Francis squarely into labels like "left-wing Pope" (a chapter title) or "progressive" that would no doubt make Pope Francis squirm. In too much of the book, Pope Francis comes off as a man embroiled in conflict, when in fact the author quotes the Pope as saying that "unity prevails over conflict" as one of his "four coordinates of action." Yet her portrayal of the Pope is entirely the opposite.

In her final chapter, Piqué expresses her high hopes of changes in the Church. Her aspirations are rooted in public statements made by Cardinal Walter Kasper, by the Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, and by the Archbishop Emeritus of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.

Why would Piqué heavily quote these bishops to describe the novelty of a Latin American Pope?

These lingering questions about the arbitrarily selected sources and the contradictions between Piqué's "facts" and the reality not only disappoints those expecting a straight, fact-based biography. It also questions the wisdom of rushing the translation into English of an obviously dated account of the facts that lacks a relevant update vis-a-vis the latest papal developments on the issues to which the author devotes many pages.

Piqué is a smart journalist, and reading her personal opinions about Pope Francis may not be a totally futile effort. But for those expecting a truly ultimate biography of our Pope, one that broadens our understanding of a man who is actively transforming the world, the wait continues.

Ashley E. McGuire is a Senior Fellow with The Catholic Association.

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